Ultimate recyling project: Building a soda bottle classroom

What happens when Peace Corps volunteers, the non-profit organization, Hug it Forward and a bevvy of school children and teachers in Guatemala recycle plastic bottles and trash? A school classroom.

The collected bottles were stuffed with trash and used to form the walls for a classroom addition at a school in Granados, a small mountain town in the Baja Verapaz region of the country. Amazing.

This video shows how the project was done. The music is a fitting addition to a project that brought the widest smiles to dozens of faces.

Imagine what might happen if similar projects happened on a massive scale world wide. There are a lot of plastic bottles on the planet.

For another version of a building project that fits into travel and activism, check out this gallery on house building with teens, college students and adults in Mexico through Amor Ministries, another non-profit that welcomes volunteers.


Good Deed Travel: House building in Mexico vs drug cartels

As the news stories about the drug cartels in Mexico have increased, I’ve been struck by the contrast between the violence I’ve heard about in cities like Tijuana and what I experienced one year ago–just an hour over the Mexican border past the outskirts of that city and its urban sprawl.

High up a craggy hill, up winding, steep roads, where shacks of pieced together boards and metals served as ramshackle houses, I was hopefully helping to make the life of one family better. The other 160 people I was with–ranging in ages from fourteen to early sixties, were also building houses nearby. For a week we worked in groups to build twelve simple, two-room adobe structures with concrete floors and solid, leak-proof roofs.


Last year, I wrote a post about what prompted me to do such a trip. This is a follow-up.

Although I didn’t go to Mexico this year, the trip did happen. A little over two weeks ago, more Mexican families were handed the keys to their new front doors. Afterward, the bus loads of do-gooders, mostly adolescents, waited to go through customs to cross back into the U.S. for lunch at an In-N-Out Burger in San Diego, a hot shower and a night at a hotel.

If their trip was at all like ours, the stories they told each other as they waited were not about drug trafficking, but about the families they got to know and what they accomplished in five days. They will have mentioned the pleasure they found from mixing cement, measuring and cutting boards, pounding nails, and laying out the roofing. More importantly, they will have talked about the connections they made with the Mexican families. What will have struck them the most is how the families were so generous, kind and, in general, happy.

These are the stories I heard last year. From what the people who go on this trip every year have told me, these stories are typical. I think it would be great if these stories ended up on the news once in awhile.

One of the criticisms that I have heard about the recent news stories about Mexico is that there is so much focus on drug trafficking and the brutality of the cartels that people are getting a lopsided, and not totally accurate view of the country.

It’s not that I think that by building one humble house at a time, people can change the world, but it’s a different version of the world. Mexico is also filled with people who are focused on having a quiet, decent life where their kids are safe.

Still, as we were driving from where we were based to the border, the closer we got to Tijuana, the more graffiti I noticed. The simple, calm beauty of the countryside gradually shifted to what I perceived as anger, particularly since most of the graffiti was on the outside walls that surrounded housing developments of the people who worked in factories.

The contrast between the scattered clusters of houses where we had spent our time, and these walls was striking. I was happy that we passed on through.

A year later, the images of Maria, her grandsons and her son who live in the house I helped to build are much stronger than that graffiti.

Good-Deed Travel in Mexico: The value of being with a group

First off, I’m the type that is happy to be alone. Sometimes groups get on my nerves. Sometimes, I feel like I belong with the crowd just fine. Other times, being in a group gives me the feeling that I am wearing the wrong style clothing. Instead of a cocktail dress, I’ve worn jeans or vis versa.

I seriously had not a clue of what to expect when I headed off to Mexico to help build houses. I barely had time to pack. When my daughter and I were heading out the door, I couldn’t find the left shoe of the pair I planned to wear when I wasn’t hammering and sawing. I gave up and grabbed another. What I have found, in general, that it is hard to do good-deeds on ones own. My biggest successes have been when I am part of something bigger than myself.

For this good-deed trip, we had to be at the airport by 6:00 a.m. to hook up with the group scheduled for the Southwest Airlines flight two hours later. There was comfort in being handed a list of the people in my travel group and their name tags by one of the trip leaders. I felt hooked in with a purpose, a reason to be along, and not like one of those body parts that we don’t really need. I had on the right clothes. It didn’t matter that I was only in charge of keeping track of five people besides myself. The words, “Here’s your travel group,” roused me from my early morning bleary state of a lack of sleep.

Two people in my group were college students, two were high schoolers and there was my daughter. The college guys were brothers. The high school guys were friends, and none of the pairs knew each other beforehand. As I handed out the name tags, to be worn around our necks at all times, it felt good to be pulled into the realm of a other people. It felt weighty. We were a subset of a larger group on the same Southwest Airlines flight.

As soon hit the airport in Columbus, I remembered one more advantage of traveling in a group instead of going it alone. In general, someone else has done the hard part of figuring out logistics. You can even get matching luggage tags which helps keep bags together.

Another advantage of traveling with a group is that when the flight is delayed for two hours, there is someone to play cards with or to color. Or to watch your stuff while you sleep. I learned that even high school age students like to color in coloring books. One girl brought them along.

Being in a group is almost like stepping on a conveyor belt. You can get from one point to the next without thinking about how you’re going to get there. So many details are taken care of by someone else. If a person has a busy life when not doing good-deed travel, it’s a bonus to have someone else do the thinking. It’s not that my brain was left with my missing shoe, but I didn’t feel the need to be “on,” or the one with the answers.

Here’s another bonus. When your flight is late arriving at a connecting airport, when you are part of a large group, the plane gets held for you. We hoofed it in Phoenix from one gate to the next, our name tags swinging, checking all the while to make sure we were all accounted for. The plane also waits for your luggage to transfer. If I had been on my own, I’d have gotten to know the airport much more than I would have cared to, and heaven knows when the luggage would have arrived.

In all, over 160 of us went to Mexico which involved three different flights from Columbus to San Diego. Our flight had about one third of the total. The youngest person on the trip was 14. The oldest was over 60. Most people were high school age. The small group subset helped reinforce the idea that being on a do-good trip meant being part of a larger purpose where building relationships was an important part of building a house. For parents who are sending adolescents out of the country, this system also ensures that an adult has some notion of what their kid is up to and that he or she won’t be left out, or left behind.

Once we hit Amor Ministries campground in Mexico, about an hour from Tijuana, except for our assigned work groups, and large group meetings, we were free to group up or go it alone as we saw fit. Traveling in a group means that there is someone who can help get those tent stakes in hard-packed ground. Someone else knows where other stakes are available when all of yours don’t work.

The real value of being part of a larger mixed age group, like we were, is the varied conversations one can have. Chatting took on various forms and levels from trivial to deep. With 160 plus people along, there’s always someone to talk with if you feel like it. Or if you don’t feel like it, who cares? There are plenty of others so you can be left alone–just not forever.

With a trip such as the one I went on, people forge friendships, if only for a week, with people who have a common purpose. This is a powerful feeling. One is not swirling about the planet in a random way trying to find footing, but instead there you are with others who have gathered for a common goal. Let’s build a house. A person can not build a house alone, even if one has built a house before.

If you happen to be one who travels on your own, latching onto a group for a brief while, might be one way to look at life from another angle. It’s not just the finished houses that have value, it’s the feeling of connection that develps after a few days. Friends of mine who have participated in Habitat for Humanity type projects have said the same thing..

From what I’ve found, most people who travel in groups have a welcoming spirit, and if you’re willing and able, will find a place for you. They might even share their food.

This picture is of my work group in charge of building one of the 12 houses that the 160 of us built. The first picture is the frame. The two high school boys of my travel group were also in my work group. I’m the front row, 2nd from the left. See the name tag? My T-shirt says, “Don’t assume I cook.” In a group, I don’t have to.